Absolutely one of my favorite VFX sci-fi/fantasy releases of the year, Mike Grier’s dystopian, environmental parable combines everything I love about the form, from gorgeous practical design with tasteful VFX work, to a genuinely satisfying story set within an exciting and interesting world.
The setup is a bit cliché of course—an outsider, part of an ancient but disparaged order, nurses a crushing heartbreak that has alienated him from society. Yet, in the face of catastrophic disease that threatens civilization, he is marshaled into finding a cure. Irezumi, played by noted Japanese actor Mashasi Odate, is a bit different though than a normal protagonist—first off he is Asian, which allows the filmmakers to draw upon a different set of traditional associations than we in the West are used to in order to flesh out the character. Additionally, as a “tracker” the ancient order he belongs to, Irezumi’s skills are not merely survivalist, he is also a scientist, his observational skills as a zoologist and a botanist are arguably more important than his physical skills.
Grier lists anime and classic horror as key inspirations for the film, and the anime influences are especially noticeable in the film’s themes, if not necessarily its look, including the film’s emphasis on environmental degradation (Miyazaki, most notably in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) as well the concept of “living in balance”. While I have not confirmed it with the filmmaker, I would bet strongly that Irezumi, a lone ambassador whose fights against the fantastical creatures of the forest are tinged with a sentiment of deep sadness and hopeful desire to achieve harmony, is heavily modeled off the anime tv show Mushi-shi, a show that is not well known in the West, but considered one of the classics of the past 10 years.
Selling this environmental message is helped by the fact that the crew shot the film in Japan, and the natural splendor of the forests and villages that serve as the film’s settings are the kind of under-loved touches that really sell good world-building. This is the rare VFX film where the production design and costuming is equal to the digital work, and at no point was I brought out of the world by sloppy integration. The fx work is uniformly excellent on both the micro (the intricate creature design) as well as the macro, (the walled cities that humanity has barricaded themselves within).
I’m always a bit curious how films this ambitious and accomplished get produced. In the case of Dust, Grier, a former student at Dodge College and a creative director in Japan, founded Ember Lab as an animation and vfx studio with his brother Josh. The infrastructure of the studio provided solid expertise and capacity for the project, but still a good amount of money was needed. Enter Kickstarter, where the short was able to raise over 100k from more than 1000 contributors way back in 2012. The film was eventually completed, and toured film fests last year, picking up a notable win at the influential geek festival, Dragon-Con. Now it’s online for everyone to see. It’s a long one, but I highly encourage you to give it a shot, and to share it far and wide.